A unionized WBEZ begins to take shape 

The aim is to protect Chicago Public Media's spirit. The challenge is to reach a consensus without splitting into factions.

The idea of unionizing the professional staff of Chicago Public Media, which operates NPR affiliate WBEZ, was an old one that for years never went anywhere. But last July CEO Torey Malatia resigned under fire, and the idea was reborn with urgency. In December CPM's staff voted 40 to seven to join the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Still ahead is step two, in which the new union and CPM management hammer out a contract. Should the union wait for CPM to name Malatia's successor? That might be a good idea. Otherwise it could find itself trying to bargain with somebody who wants Malatia's old job and thinks hard-nosed confrontation with the union would impress CPM's board of directors.

But the new bargaining unit's four designated spokespersons sound eager to get on with it. The appointment of the next CEO shouldn't hold up the union contract because determining the next CEO isn't something "we'd necessarily be bargaining toward," said Robin Linn, senior producer for WBEZ's Sound Opinions, pointing out that "our opinions have been solicited as to what kind of leadership we want."

Which is?

"I wouldn't want to speak for everybody," Linn went on, "but I think we're looking for someone who is a visionary, and who is inspirational. It's nice to have daily reminders of why you're doing the hard work that you're doing." Malatia was that kind of leader, she said. "I think everyone would agree he was a visionary. Whether it was a good vision was another story. But overall, he was a really good communicator and very inspirational."

Linn wasn't willing to say that unionization would have failed (or not been attempted in the first place) if Malatia was still there. But she observed: "When any great change takes place, good or bad, it forces you to take stock."

I asked the other three spokespersons the same question about Malatia. "I don't know if we can say unequivocally that Torey was the catalyst," said Carrie Shepherd, senior producer of WBEZ's midday talk programming. Rob Wildeboer, WBEZ legal affairs reporter: "For me, it wasn't related to [Malatia leaving]. I just think it's a good idea. It's employees organizing, right? That's a good thing."

And Alison Cuddy, WBEZ's culture and arts reporter, said: "We take a lot of pride in our work and we want to be part of the decisions being made going forward. We had someone running the station for a long time and he was no longer there." And the staff unionized in response? Cuddy didn't want it to sound that simple. "There were a lot of different reasons people had for forming a union," she told me. "You can't pin it to that thing."

Before a union can negotiate a first contract, a "lot of different reasons" need to be massaged into a set of proposals everyone can get behind. That's why SAG-AFTRA has asked the members of the new bargaining unit to fill out an online questionnaire that asks for their desires and priorities. The challenge is to reach a consensus without splitting into factions, translate the consensus into a proposed contract, and then employ the ancient union tools of pressure, bluff, and compromise to achieve most of it.

I've never observed a contract negotiation that wasn't contentious. The staff's sparring with CPM management has already taken a nasty turn: as I previously reported, CPM submitted a brief to the National Labor Relations Board that accused four senior staffers of mendaciously misrepresenting their responsibilities to the NLRB. Furthermore, the brief laid out in detail the "performance issues" of one of WBEZ's reporters.

But the staffers I've talked to say they've shrugged this off. Ever since the now unionized staff sprung its organizing petition on interim CEO Alison Scholly in September, it's weighed its words carefully, and its spokespersons remain guarded. If they expect serious conflict at the bargaining table they don't say so. "I love what I'm doing. I'm not a disgruntled employee at all," said Wildeboer. He simply wants to make sure that same esprit de corps "continues in the future."

Linn has an agenda in mind, but it's far from radical. She wants "content producers and reporters to have more of a role in the design and mission of the station." And she wants "more transparency, and a level of professionalism that I think this organizing could bring."

(Scholly didn't respond to a phone call and e-mail asking for her perspective on the CPM workplace in light of the new union.)

The union negotiating team will be led by SAG-AFTRA staff attorney Paula Weinbaum. Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the NLRB, assured me that often "things work out really, really well." And, he added, when a vote to unionize is as overwhelming as CPM's was, "that often helps with contract negotiations." It was Ohr who rejected CPM's argument for excluding the four senior staffers from the union. The shots they took from CPM in a public document don't alarm him. "In those types of issues, [management knows] they have to establish supervisory authority in order to make their case, so typically they are pretty specific," he told me. "But none of it was unusual."

Probably not—in the context of the broad labor landscape Ohr knows so well. But it put CPM on terra incognita.

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